Good King Wenceslas
By Peter James (Dec 21, 2015)
Though mercy should linger in our songs and in our hearts all year round, it seems to ring loudest at Christmas time. There is no doubt that the theme of mercy can be found in many favorite Christmas carols. Whether we are caroling or simply listening, these carols cheer us, soothe us, and challenge us to be merciful.
Father George Kosicki, CSB, the great Divine Mercy evangelist, once summed up the meaning of mercy as follows: "having a pain in your heart for the pains of others, and taking pains to do something about their pain."
That said, in this first of a four-part series, let's turn our attention to "Good King Wenceslas," written by John Mason Neale.
This carol tells a story of mercy that reflects Fr. Kosicki's definition. It also happens to bring me to tears every time I hear it because it provides a perfect portrait of the Christian life.
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel.
What a divine coincidence that Good King Wenceslas would see a poor man and think to help him from his bounty on the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the first deacons who helped serve the widows of the early church in their daily needs (Acts 6-7). We see immediately the author's intent is to bring us a Biblical example of the mercy that serves others.
"Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know'st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain."
How lovely must have been that fountain beside which this lowly peasant lived. Perhaps he reminded himself of the purity of St. Agnes who, being tempted by the world to enjoy the lusts and pleasures of earth, instead gladly married her Savior Christ Jesus through the sword of martyrdom. Yet maybe this poor peasant also asked himself, "Where is the God that helped St. Agnes? Why does He not help me?" Yet, little did he know that a Good King was being prepared who would soon be the answer to his prayers.
I see another reminder of myself in the page. The king's servant says of the poor beggar, "Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain." It is almost as if the page anticipates the goodness of his king and that he would go to the end of the earth to help another, but he (the page) does not want to be asked to help. Could it be like me when I realize God's mercy is needed somewhere, but I pay no heed to the matter because it is "too far; too much; too impossible." Do I anticipate saying no to giving God's goodness to others?
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.
Despite the page's original objection of how long the journey would be, the king asks his servant (his page) to gather the necessary food, drink, and fuel that would be given to this yet unknown peasant. Why did the king ask the page for help? Was he not the monarch of the land? Could we not ask the same of God? Why does He prompt me to help others? Couldn't He help them from His coffers by Himself?
The answer lies in the fact that I am so self-centered and so "in to myself" that I need God to prompt me to the acts of mercy. To be commanded to be merciful to others is a mercy in and of itself! Is this not what Jesus meant when He said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Mt 5:7)?
Then, the song's story tells us that both "page and monarch" marched together on the Lord's business. Yet, while the page is walking, his heart begins to faint, and he says:
"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly.
Oh what wonderful provision from the good monarch! Both were on the divine call to bless another. Yet, the page (even me, when I reflect upon it) began to falter and to fail. It is difficult to live in this worldly wilderness; my flesh does not want to do good to another if it requires such sacrifice. It is almost as if the page is crying out to the king: "I can't go any further without you. The elements of winter are strong and beating against me." Just as the apostles rode the boat with Jesus in the tumultuous storm (Mk 4:35-39), so, too, we can become weary in well doing or "remiss in doing good" (2 Thess 3:13).
What could possibly save us? What does the king do in this Christmas carol? He walks, we assume, ahead of the page, marking and preparing the path. We know the "footsteps" are snow prints, for we were told in the first stanza that the snow "lay round about, deep and crisp and even." So the king says he will make his imprint first, and the page should then follow just as our children might follow in our footsteps when we make large imprints in the newly fallen snow.
But what does that teach us about Jesus? It teaches us that He has not asked us to walk a path He has not already prepared for us. When we ask, "What would Jesus do?" we are really asking, "How deep are Jesus' footprints in the snow?" Let us walk in those footprints where He has walked, and He will enable and empower us to do the work He has called us to fulfill.
Did the page follow his master's call?
In his master's steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Indeed, the page did as he was told, and he found the path easier. No longer did he have to make his own tracks in the snow that, prior, had caused him to falter and stumble. Now he could follow in "his master's steps," for the master had already walked the path for him.
The song concludes that those Christians who have riches or fame ought to be the ones to bless the poor. I believe all those who have been touched by God's Divine Mercy have this "wealth or rank possessing."
To put this song to practical purpose, I can tell you how it has challenged me in my spiritual walk with the Lord. Very often, I talk to God in order to receive answers to prayers. However, when was the last time I asked Him, "Make me an answer to someone else's prayer?"
Isn't that the essence of mercy? We would see that all of our needs would be met above and beyond what we could possibly imagine if, sometimes, we simply say, "Lord, today it is not about me. Today, I don't want You to give me anything except a double portion of Your love and grace. I will not hold on to this love and grace for myself alone, but give it to others as You see fit. And in so doing, I wish to show others the wonderful grace of Jesus so that sinners would repent and turn to You! In Jesus's name, Amen."
Here's a personal favorite version of "Good King Wenceslas" — this one performed by The Irish Rovers:
• Part One:
"Good King Wenceslas"
• Part Two:
"Who Is He In Yonder Stall?"
• Part Three:
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"
• Part Four:
"Go Tell It On the Mountain"
Peter James is an administrative assistant for the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge, Mass.